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Horse Sense

A horse in the carousel at Lighthouse Point.

Feel free to look any of these sixty-eight horses in the mouth. Each horse is treated, sometimes daily if weather and use warrant it, by careful hands reaching a special solution into the crevices of its body. The horsetails are washed, treated, wiped, and dried individually twice a year, at the beginning and end of riding season.

The carousel currently at Lighthouse Point Park was built in 1912 and installed in 1916 in the white-walled Victorian-style pavilion behind the historical lighthouse on the beach. The New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees has operated the carousel since 1924 and evacuated the horses due to weather for the first time this August. As Hurricane Irene approached, the parks department had special movers dismantle the carousel and place the pieces into trucks to move them offsite. The horses were transported back a few days later.

The city had moved the herd before, in the late 1970s, when it could not afford the carousel’s operation. Unlike other municipalities affected by the depression, New Haven kept the horses in storage. Mayor Biagio DiLieto formed a group in 1980 called the Friends of the Carousel that systematically raised money to resurrect, repaint, and refresh the carousel. The group succeeded, and the carousel reopened in 1983.

The sixty-eight horsetails are real horsetails, the horses hand-painted tin, and the gold paint twenty-four-carat gold leaf. Four years ago, the set of horses was quartered and taken out in sections to be refurbished and repainted. The last quarter was finished and placed this April, completing the renovation at $3,200 a horse. The running price for a ride is fifty cents.

In the 1920s, that golden age of radio, sports, and carousels, there were ten thousand carousels around the country like the one in this pavilion on the southeast side of New Haven. Carousels once were driven by steam. Today, there are fewer than 150 running and open to the public.

The nearest carousel to New Haven’s used to be the one at West Haven’s Savin Rock Park, but that carousel’s pieces were sold in 1971 to Magic Mountain, the Six Flags amusement park in Valencia, California. Savin Rock Park once had seven carousels and was the Disneyland of its day from the 1890s until the Great Depression. Upon paying $350,000 for the set of forty-seven horses, plus one thousand dollars for shipping, the California amusement park immediately cast fiberglass duplicates of the horses and sold off the originals at prices rumored to be extravagant.

Event and Project Coordinator for the Department of Parks Sabrina Bruno estimates that New Haven’s carousel is worth up to three million dollars post-renovation, or roughly forty thousand a horse. (Even an outstanding Arabian racehorse costs ten to twenty thousand dollars.)

Some New Haven residents remember a relatively recent age of chipped paint and sad-looking horses. All are invited to the one hundred year anniversary celebration next spring to see the horses show off their new coats. The anniversary was technically this year, but additional fundraising will necessarily precede the festivities, set tentatively for the first weekend in May.

The parks department’s operation is seasonal, running March to October, with about eighty events each year. The aim is to make the carousel and the lighthouse financially self-sufficient, but the bigger goal is to preserve love for these local spots. Some of the history of the carousel is lost already, frustrating carousel aficionados turned scholars like Peter Malia, originally of West Haven, where Lighthouse Point’s horses were hand-carved by two master carvers he considers the Michaelangelos of carousel horse carving.

“People consider them folk art, but you have to go see these horses to understand that these aren’t just folk art. They’re highly sophisticated wooden sculptures, not ones you’d find at a country fair,” said Malia, author of Flying Horses: The Golden Age of American Carousel Art, 1870-1930.

Malia’s is the first fully annotated history of carousels in America. He published the book last year in conjunction with the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, Conn. New Haven’s herd is considered one of the best and most beautiful carousels anywhere, Malia said.

The main draw for park visitors, however, is not historical, though Bruno assures that there are and always will be a few carousel buffs. The free parking and use of the park for New Haven residents (and twenty-dollar flat rate per day for other Connecticut residents) bring families, some of whom come weekly in the summer as they try to escape the heat. The carousel runs at ten miles an hour, slightly higher than average carousel speeds, Malia said. Regulations tend to limit speeds at six to twelve miles an hour.

Annette Lilly has lived in New Haven her whole life and visits the 2,200-acre park every weekend, sometimes twice a weekend.

“We live in New Haven. Nothing else to do but come here,” she said. She visits with her husband, sometimes her children and her granddaughter. Her daughter-in-law had her baby shower in the park, by the beach. Lilly’s connection to the place stems from ennui for everything else New Haven more than interest in this particular landmark. “I used to love New Haven,” she said listlessly. “It’s been so many years.”

Out-of-state visitors pay thirty dollars per car for the park’s proximity to the Long Island Sound and the harbor lighthouse (also called Five Mile Point Light for its five-mile distance from the New Haven Green). One family reunion this summer involved almost one hundred family members spread over five generations for a cookout. Elaine Jones and her family drove more than seven hundred miles from Charlotte, N.C., and were glad they did.

“It’s a family-oriented park and it has the water, it has the carousel—everything you might be looking for when you got a lot of little children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren,” Jones said.

She sent off these young family members with a fifty-cent fare and watched them shout ‘Hi, Mama! Hi, Nana! Hi!’ and wave hysterically each time they came around to the front, where she stood and waved and made faces back. As the children got off the carousel, they ran toward her, asking, “Remember when I said ‘Hi’ to you? Remember? Do you?” and then ran past her.

Carazmia Buonome-Scott, age 4, finds herself absorbed from time to time in the carousel’s spin. She takes a bus with her grandmother and her sister and then leaves them behind to mount a favorite horse she has knighted Bluesy.

“Well, I named him that!” she declares. Bluesy is white and gold, with pink and green trim. Carazmia rides him every Saturday and plays on the playground, a recent addition to the park.

New projects like these are funded in part by events at the park. A wedding between two Yale history Ph.D. candidates included a history of Lighthouse Point Park handwritten in segments on the back of old postcards with pictures of the park. The couple had collected the cards over many months at old bookstores. Events in the glassed pavilion often have such themes or motifs.

“We’re fortunate in that people who are looking for a unique venue are also unique themselves,” Bruno said. “The brides we get may have the same nervousness as other brides, but they have new thoughts, and totally different ideas for their weddings.”

The white pavilion includes a dance floor, a ceiling with delicate paper balls dangling casually across, and round white wooden tables and chairs. And, of course, the carousel.

“People come from all over asking us, ‘Do we actually get to ride that? Is that actually going to run for us?’ ” Bruno said. “What happens is that they sometimes rent it because they have a lot of children in the wedding party or because they decided to have children at their weddings, and it’s not the children that ride, it’s the adults. Everyone has so much fun.”

The money not allocated for staff salaries goes into a special enterprise fund that supports the constant upkeep of the sixty-eight horses. The park also makes money on an outdoor adventure program, offering activities including canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking, and a ropes course, at subsidized costs, usually about half the costs of private, for-profit programs. The park runs camps for kids all summer in conjunction with this program.

The semi-commercial model is unusual and complicated, but it protects the department from budget cuts, which the parks department suffers before most other public departments.

“It’s a labor of love,” Bruno said. “And it’s all dedication by the people of the city of New Haven, particularly under the stewardship of this parks department.”

And though the carousel’s future may lie in the waving hands of younger generations, its maintenance falls to these staff. “The carousel is really something to be cherished and loved, and of course the more children we expose to it, the greater chances that they’ll care the way we have, as we move on and they move up,” Bruno said.

Staff members become easily attached to the park system and to Lighthouse Point Park.

“It’s just a gem, in my own way of looking at it,” said park staff member Dean Graham.

The eighty events a year occupy the staff, who wear neon yellow shirts marking them as parks department employees during the day, but white dress shirts and black pants at night, when their pay comes from the enterprise fund.

“There’s always something to do, there’s always something going on around here with all these busy weekends and holidays and family reunions,” Graham said. “We clean up, set up, clean up, set up, clean up again, ‘round and ‘round and ‘round.”

Photograph: New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees

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